Ammar Awad / Reuters

Israel’s Jerusalem paradox: Turmoil shows the city is hardly ‘undivided’

Analysis: Israeli leaders talk as if control of East Jerusalem is irreversible, but protests show an uncertain fate

“Jerusalem is under attack,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday, following an incident the previous evening in which a Palestinian man had plowed his car into a crowd at a Light Rail stop, killing a baby and injuring seven other people. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat called for “a new battle doctrine” involving a heavier police presence in Palestinian neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem, as well as increased use of force and of unmanned surveillance balloons.

East Jerusalem has seen daily rioting by Palestinians since July, when 16-year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was burned alive in a forest by a group of Israelis identified with the extreme right, believed to be seeking revenge for the murder of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank. While the mayor and prime minister insist that Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital," they can’t seem to rein in the eastern side of the city, which comprises the bulk of the capital’s territory and nearly 40 percent of its residents — most of them Palestinians.

Israel occupied and annexed East Jerusalem as a result of the war in 1967. But its claim of sovereignty over the predominantly Palestinian parts of the city beyond the Green Line that demarcated the pre-1967 boundaries is not internationally recognized, and even the United States deems efforts to settle Jewish Israelis there “illegitimate.” Still, successive Israeli governments have moved to strengthen Israel’s grip on East Jerusalem, insisting they have no intention of sharing control of it in any two-state solution.  Israeli-Palestinian negotiations may be paralyzed, but facts on the ground are constantly changing as the battle over the city's status rages on.

Protests and clashes in neighborhoods such as Shufat, Issawiya and Wadi Joz have seen Palestinian children as young as 8 and 9 throwing stones and firebombs, mostly targeting the three-year-old Light Rail system — branded by Barkat’s administration as a symbol of the city’s unity and modernization, but rejected by Palestinians, who see it as an expression of occupation. Nine out of the system’s 23 train cars have been damaged, leaving about 40 percent of the system inoperable. The State Department on Thursday banned U.S. diplomatic personnel from riding the train for a month in the area of the attack and warned employees not to enter neighborhoods where clashes have been taking place.  Regular attacks on the train are a viscerally tangible sign of Palestinians’ refusal to accept Israeli sovereignty over the part of the city it claims as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The widely publicized beating by Israeli border police of U.S. citizen Tareq Abu Khdeir, cousin of the slain teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, highlighted the limits of the Israeli authorities’ heavy-handed policing in Jerusalem. Around 30 members of the Abu Khdeir family were subsequently arrested as protests continued to rage, undeterred by Israel’s crackdown.

On Aug. 31, just a few days after the Gaza War ended, 16-year-old Mohammed Sunuqrut was shot in the head during a protest in Wadi Joz and later died of his wounds. While police originally claimed they had shot him in the leg and that he had fallen and hit his head, the autopsy showed he had been struck in the head by a black sponge-tipped bullet, in violation of Israel’s own crowd dispersal regulations.

According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the police had introduced this heavier, denser version of the blue sponge-tipped bullet commonly used in East Jerusalem over the summer because officers had complained that they needed a more effective means of crowd dispersal. The use of rubber-coated bullets, considered “non-lethal” despite having killed protesters, was banned by the Israeli government inside Israel (which, by the definitions of Israeli law, includes East Jerusalem) following the Or Commission’s investigation of the killing of 13 Palestinians citizens in October 2000 at the start of the Second Intifada.

Hoping to quell the demonstrations, Israeli police have over the past three months arrested at least 760 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, 260 of them minors. Children were arrested from their homes in the night. Some are below the legal criminal age of 12, and many are kept in prison until charges are filed — in some cases for months at a time. But neither the mass arrests nor heavy-handed riot-control tactics have restored calm in East Jerusalem. The death of an Israeli baby has now forced Israel’s mainstream media to take notice of an escalating conflict in Jerusalem to which they had paid scant attention. Thus far, however, the only answer offered by the authorities is an even harsher security crackdown — despite the failure of tougher measures to suppress Palestinian protests until now.

There are a number of potentially self-defeating paradoxes at work in Israeli policy in Jerusalem. Despite insisting that East Jerusalem is an integral part of Israel and applying Israeli law there, Israel refuses to grant the city’s Palestinian population the same Israeli citizenship it has extended to Palestinians living within its 1948 borders. Instead, Israel registered Jerusalem Palestinians as permanent residents, but has since revoked the status of over 14,000 residents. Although they are covered by Israel’s national health insurance system and are free to travel throughout Israel, the government invests little in infrastructure or education available to that population. Israel also built the separation wall throughout the eastern edge of the city, winding in and out of the municipal boundaries to exclude as many Palestinians as possible, but then built the Light Rail to supposedly streamline their access to the western part of the city. 

Netanyahu has affirmed that there will be no reversal on the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, on which sits the Al Aqsa mosque, but legislators from his own party are pushing to change that rule -- an issue which has helped spur protests around the mosque in recent weeks. 

And then there’s the political paradox over Jerusalem: Most Jewish Israelis say the want a two-state solution, but balk at the notion of relinquishing the eastern side despite the international consensus on a Palestinian state having its capital there. A recent poll by a right-wing think tank found that 76 percent of Jewish Israelis oppose Palestinian statehood if that would require dividing Jerusalem.

Even as its government still officially talks of a two-state solution — although lately Prime Minister Netanyahu has begun openly declaring that he won’t accept sovereign Palestinian independence in the West Bank — Israel has followed a settlement policy in Jerusalem that will make physical partition impossible — most recently expanding the settler presence in the densely populated Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.

Jerusalem has long been a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the place where the demographic, religious, geographic, historical and political battles are all on display. Israeli leaders use the “eternal, undivided” adjectival compound to insist that all disputes and conflicts over the city’s sovereignty have been settled by Israel’s military victory in 1967, and its subsequent settlement policies. The events of recent months in East Jerusalem, however, subvert that schema, showing the limits on Israel’s ability to provide security for its citizens through force — and reminding the Israeli public of the unsettled accounts of the conflict with the Palestinians.

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